Three new species of ground snakes discovered under graveyards and churches in Ecuador

The new snakes, which are small and cylindrical, were named in honor of institutions or people supporting the exploration of remote cloud forests in the tropics.

A group of scientists led by Alejandro Arteaga, grantee of The Explorers Club Discovery Expeditions and researcher at Khamai Foundation, discovered three new cryptozoic (living underground) snakes hidden under graveyards and churches in remote towns in the Andes of Ecuador. The discovery was made official in a study published in the journal ZooKeys. The new snakes, which are small, cylindrical, and rather archaic-looking, were named in honor of institutions or people supporting the exploration and conservation of remote cloud forests in the tropics.

Atractus michaelsabini was found hidden besides a church in the Andean town Guanazán, El Oro province, Ecuador. Photo by Amanda Quezada

Believe or not, graveyards are also land of the living. In the Andes of Ecuador, they are inhabited by a fossorial group of snakes belonging to the genus Atractus. These ground snakes are the most species-rich snake genus in the world (there are now 150 species known globally), but few people have seen one or even heard about their existence. This is probably because these serpents are shy and generally rare, and they remain hidden throughout most of their lives. Additionally, most of them inhabit remote cloud forests and live buried underground or in deep crevices. In this particular case, however, the new ground snakes where found living among crypts.

General view of a graveyard in Amaluza, Azuay province, Ecuador. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga

The discovery of the three new species took place rather fortuitously and in places where one would probably not expect to find these animals. The Discovery Ground Snake (Atractus discovery) was found hidden underground in a small graveyard in a remote cloud forest town in southeastern Ecuador, whereas the two other new species were found besides an old church and in a small school. All of this seems to suggest that, at least in the Andes, new species of snakes might be lurking just around the corner.

Unfortunately, the coexistence of ground snakes and villagers in the same town is generally bad news for the snakes. The study by Arteaga reports that the majority of the native habitat of the new snakes has already been destroyed. As a result of the retreating forest line, the ground snakes find themselves in the need to take refuge in spaces used by humans (both dead and alive), where they are usually killed on sight.

Atractus zgap. Photo by Alejandro Artaga.

Diego Piñán, a teacher of the town where one of the new reptiles was found, says: “when I first arrived at El Chaco in 2013, I used to see many dead snakes on the road; others where hit by machetes or with stones. Now, after years of talking about the importance of snakes, both kids and their parents, while still wary of snakes, now appreciate them and protect them.” Fortunately, Diego never threw away the dead snakes he found: he preserved them in alcohol-filled jars and these were later used by Arteaga to describe the species as new to science.

A jar full of Atractus snakes. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga

In addition to teaching about the importance of snakes, the process of naming species is important to create awareness about the existence of a new animal and its risk of extinction. In this particular case, two of the new snakes are considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the near future.

The discovery process also provides an opportunity to recognize and honor the work of the people and institutions fighting to protect wildlife.

Alejandro Arteaga examines the holotype of Atractus discovery. He had to examine hundreds museum specimens before confirming the new species as such. Photo by David Jácome

Atractus discovery was named to honor The Explorers Club Discovery Expedition Grants initiative, a program seeking to foster scientific understanding for the betterment of humanity and all life on Earth and beyond. The grant program supports researchers and explorers from around the world in their quest to mitigate climate change, prevent the extinction of species and cultures, and ensure the health of the Earth and its inhabitants.

Atractus zgap. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga

Atractus zgap was named in honor of the Zoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations (ZGAP), a program seeking to conserve unknown but highly endangered species and their natural habitats throughout the world. The ZGAP grant program supports the fieldwork of young scientists who are eager to implement and start conservation projects in their home countries.

Atractus discovery. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga

Atractus michaelsabini was named in honor of a young nature lover, Michael Sabin, grandson of American philanthropist and conservationist Andrew “Andy” Sabin. Through the conservation organization Re:wild, the Sabin family has supported field research of threatened reptiles and has protected thousands of acres of critical habitat throughout the world.

“Naming species is at the core of biology”, says Dr. Juan M. Guayasamin, co-author of the study and a professor at Universidad San Francisco de Quito. “Not a single study is really complete if it is not attached to the name of the species, and most species that share the planet with us are not described.”

“The discovery of these new snakes is only the first step towards a much larger conservation project,” says Arteaga. “Now, thanks to the encouragement of ZGAP, we have already started the process of establishing a nature reserve to protect the ground snakes. This action would not have been possible without first unveiling the existence of these unique and cryptic reptiles, even if it meant momentarily disturbing the peace of the dead in the graveyard where the lived.”

Research article:

Arteaga A, Quezada A, Vieira J, Guayasamin JM (2022) Leaving no stone unturned: three additional new species of Atractus ground snakes (Serpentes, Colubridae) from Ecuador discovered using a biogeographical approach. ZooKeys 1121: 175-210. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1121.89539

Follow ZooKeys on Twitter and Facebook.

“Oscar describes Oscar”: Interview with Oscar Lasso-Alcalá, Pt 3

“This is why Mikolji’s Oscar is a highly appreciated species in the aquarium hobby. It is more than just a fish in an aquarium when it is considered a true pet.”

In this last part, we talked with ichthyologist Oscar Miguel Lasso-Alcalá about what makes Astronotus mikoljii – a new to science cichlid species that he recently described in ZooKeys – so special.

Find Part 1 and Part 2 of the interview.

What makes this species so charismatic and loved by aquarists and ichthyologists?

I already spoke about my experience as an aquarist from an early age, where the qualities of the species of the Astronotus genus, known as Oscars are highlighted.

Different varieties and color patterns have been obtained from them through selective breeding, or genetic manipulation, which are called living modified organisms (LMOs) or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

However, the true lovers of nature, the aquarians of the “Biotope Aquarium” movement  and the like, prefer pure specimens to manipulated or artificially modified ones. This is why Mikolji’s Oscar is a highly appreciated species in the aquarium hobby. It is more than just a fish in an aquarium since it is considered a true pet.

For ichthyologists, it is remarkably interesting and at the same time very challenging to study a genus like Astronotus, which already has only three described species (Astronotus ocellatus, A. cassiprinnis and A. mikoljii).

This is an unusual situation, which, as we have reported, requires an integrative approach and the work and experience of different specialists for its study. With all certainty, as in the case of Mikolji’s Oscar, other species of the genus Astronotus remain to be studied and described, and we hope that we will have the fortune to participate with our experience in these new works.

Local people have long known this species. What role does it have in their lives?

It is important to clarify that Astronotus mikoljii is a new species for science, but it is not a “new species” for people who already knew it locally under the name of Pavona, Vieja, or Cupaneca in Venezuela or Pavo Real, Carabazú, Mojarra and Mojarra Negra in Colombia. Nor for the aquarium trade, where it was known by the common name of Oscar and scientific name of Astronotus ocellatus, or, to a lesser degree, as Astronotus cassiprinnis.

This species has been of great food importance for thousands of years for at least nine indigenous ethnic groups.

Much less is it a new species for the nine thousand-year-old indigenous ethnic groups that share their world with the habitat of this fish, who baptized it with some 14 different names, known in their languages as mijsho (Kariña), boisikuajaba (Warao), hácho (Pumé = Yaruro), phadeewa, jadaewa (Ye’Kuana = Makiritare), perewa, parawa (Eñepá = Panare), yawirra (Kúrrim = Kurripako), kohukohurimï, kohokohorimï, owënawë kohoromï” (Yanomami = Yanomamï), eba (Puinave), Itapukunda (Kurripako), uan (Tucano).

Hence, the importance of scientific names, since the same species can have multiple common names, in the same language or in multiple languages.

It is important to note that very few studies that describe new species for science include the common names of the species, as given by the indigenous ethnic groups or natives of the regions, where the species live.

This species has been of great food importance for thousands of years for at least nine indigenous ethnic groups, and for more than 500 years to the hundreds of human communities of locals who inhabit the Orinoco River basin in Venezuela and Colombia. In our studies, in the plains of Orinoco from 30 years ago, we were able to verify its consumption, as well as high gastronomic value, due to its pleasant taste and enhanced texture.

However, due to my imprint as an aquarist, I have not wanted to consume it on the different occasions that it was offered to me, because it is very difficult to eat the beloved pets that we had in our childhood.

Why is this fish important to people and to ecosystems?

It is especially important to highlight that the Astronotus mikoljii species plays a very important role in the ecosystem, due to its biological and ecological background.

Although it can feed from different sources, it is a fundamentally carnivorous species, and therefore, it “controls” other species in the ecosystem.

Without Mikolji’s Oscar, the aquatic ecosystem would lose one of its fundamental links and the delicate balance of its functioning, because the species it feeds on could increase their populations uncontrollably, becoming veritable pests. This would put in great danger the entire future of the aquatic ecosystem of the Orinoco River basin and the permanence of other species of ecological importance.

In addition, it would surely affect other species used by man, both those of commercial importance (sold as food or as ornamental species), and for the subsistence fishing of native and indigenous inhabitants.

Mikolji’s Oscar, although a carnivorous species, also has its natural predators, for example piranhas and other predatory fish. For this reason, it evolved with an ocellus, or false eye, at the base of the caudal fin, to confuse its predators and guarantee its survival. Obviously, this species will be compromised if we don’t learn about it, use its populations wisely and preserve it in the long term.

***

Photos by Ivan Mikolji.

***

You can find Part 1 and Part 2 of the interview with Oscar.

***

Follow the ZooKeys journal on Twitter and Facebook.

“Oscar describes Oscar”: Interview with Oscar Lasso-Alcalá, Pt 2

“Working in science in a country under these conditions, and getting to publish the results of the investigations in high-level scientific journals such as ZooKeys, is an act of “true heroism”.

Oscar Miguel Lasso-Alcalá, MSc. is a Spanish-Venezuelan ichthyologist. This summer, his team described a new species of Oscar fish in the journal ZooKeys.

In this second part of his interview, he tells us about the challenges in his work and shares the story behind the new cichlid’s name. You can find Part 1 of the interview.

What did you find to be the biggest challenge?

Throughout the past seven years, the description of this species has been a real challenge. Our group of researchers knew from the beginning that it was going to be a difficult job.  However, we never imagined the magnitude of the problems or challenges we would encounter.

We had to study the specimens from the Orinoco River basin in Venezuela and Colombia, and rivers from the hydrographic basin of the Gulf of Paria in Venezuela, which were within our reach, in the main scientific collections of fishes in Venezuela. Similarly, we studied the specimens from the Amazon River basin in one of the main collections in Brazil. We studied the traditional external morphology (morphometric characters, or the body, and meristic measurements, or the number of structures or parts such as scales, fins, etc.) and their coloration, as well as their internal morphology, that is, the study of structures of their skeleton, with the use of high-definition radiographs, where we found the main differences with other species.

A novel technique was the study of the shape of the otoliths, or “ear stones”, a technique not used before in the study of this group of fish. That is why I mentioned before that we also made some great scientific discoveries.

In addition to the long and meticulous laboratory work, we also had to conduct field work, not only to capture new specimens for the morphological study, but also for the genetic and molecular study, a new methodology that has become popular in recent years as a way to support taxonomy and systematics in the description and classification of species.

For this latest work, we also relied on a recent study in this area of ​​research, carried out by the genetics specialists on our work team. This means our research was based on what is currently called “integrative taxonomy”, which is the sum of different techniques, methods, and technologies, at the service of achieving our goal: the description of a new species for science and for the world.

Many other difficulties came up along the way, which is why this research took over seven years to be published. Normally, researchers cannot focus 100% of their time on one single research, and workloads fluctuate. Sometimes we think that a greater number of specialists would help distribute the workload evenly or that getting input from others with different fields of experience, sometimes specialized, would help enrich the work, but that also makes it more difficult to reach agreement. Reaching perfection is never possible, and it took a long time for us to reach a level of results that was both acceptable to all and well accepted in the field of taxonomy and systematics.

One of the biggest challenges was purely financial. While we had some funds from Brazilian research support organizations and two universities, this was not the case in Venezuela, a country plunged in a serious political, social, economic, and humanitarian crisis.

Working in science in a country under these conditions, and being able to publish your results in high-level scientific journals, including ZooKeys, is an act of “true heroism”, as my brother José Antonio often says when cheering on my publication.

How come you named it after Ivan Mikolji?

People who do not know about the great work carried out by river explorer Ivan Mikolji might wonder about that, but the thousands of people, connoisseurs and followers of his work are absolutely clear on the justification for this appointment.

Find more about Ivan Mikolji and his work on his website: https://mikolji.com/.

In addition to being an excellent professional explorer, author, underwater photographer, audiovisual producer and even plastic artist, he is a tireless and enthusiastic disseminator of the biodiversity and natural history of freshwater fish in Venezuela and Colombia.

His work has contributed greatly to the knowledge and conservation of the aquatic ecosystems of both countries. His motto is: “You cannot preserve something that you don’t know exists.”

He has made dozens of photography and art exhibitions in Venezuela, Mexico and the United States, as well as award-winning documentaries on the Orinoco River and its biodiversity that have acquired millions of views.

Mikolji has also inspired thousands of “conservationist” aquarists, as a judge in a worldwide movement called “Biotope Aquariums,” where people try to simulate, as much as possible, the ecosystems and aquatic biodiversity of their places of origin, for the conservation of their local biodiversity.

In addition, his educational work further includes the “Wild Aquarium”, a new movement and methodology, where he recreates in the same place (in situ), a “Biotope aquarium”, helping local communities (children and adults) learn about local aquatic ecosystems and biodiversity and their conservation.

In addition to his great artistic, informative, and educational work, with the enormous data accumulated in more than 15 years of work and field observations, in the recent years, he has participated in different research projects, publishing books and numerous scientific articles, some of them with us. For this reason, in 2020, he was appointed Associate Researcher of the Museo de Historia Natural La Salle (Caracas) of the Fundación La Salle de Ciencias Naturales, in Venezuela. By the way, we are planning research that we hope to announce soon in various publications.

Regarding Astronotus mikoljii, our good friend and now colleague Ivan Mikolji, was the one who initially proposed that we describe this species that he loves so much. He selflessly supported all the authors throughout the study in diverse ways, even in the field work in Venezuela. Ivan helped us in the search for equipment and materials, in the search for information, in the photographic work, and now in the dissemination of this study. For this reason, the article, in just one week, achieved more than 4,500 downloads, both on ZooKeys and ResearchGate web platforms, a true record for a study of this type.

Most importantly, throughout these years, Ivan has always encouraged us not to lose our course and objective, even in the most difficult moments. After years of knowing him, we have cultivated an excellent friendship. This is why we decided that it was just and necessary to recognize his work, help, companionship, and friendship, naming this beautiful and beloved species in his honor.

Photos by Ivan Mikolji.

***

You can find Part 1 and continue reading with Part 3.

***

Follow the ZooKeys journal on Twitter and Facebook.

“Oscar describes Oscar”: Interview with Oscar Lasso-Alcalá, Pt 1

“As an ichthyologist, I feel pride in collaborating and contributing to science, nationally, regionally, and globally.”

Oscar Miguel Lasso-Alcalá, MSc., is a Spanish-Venezuelan ichthyologist with undergraduate studies in Oceanography, Fishing Technology and Aquaculture, and Postgraduate studies in Agricultural Zoology and Estuary Ecology. He has worked in diverse areas such as taxonomy, biology, ecology, freshwater, estuarine, and marine fisheries and management. For 33 years, he has participated in more than 70 research projects and published over 250 studies. He has made more than 250 scientific expeditions to different regions of Venezuela and six other countries in America. He has dedicated much of his work to studying, educating, and managing introduced species and their invasions.

This summer, Oscar’s team described a new species of cichlid fish from northern South America in our journal ZooKeys. We spoke to him to find out how they came to the discovery and what it means to him.

When did you discover the new species?

Although some taxonomists have specimens that they believe, or have preliminarily diagnosed, to correspond to different, undescribed or new-to-science species (in my case I know of around 15 species I’ve diagnosed as new), Astronotus mikoljii was different. We did not discover that it was a new species overnight.

Normally, the process of discovering a new species takes a long time and a lot of work. It is not an easy task. First, you need to analyze the external and internal morphology. You study the color pattern and other characteristics and compare them to those of known, described species that are akin or similar to the one being studied, looking for the main differences. It is also very important to carry out exhaustive documentary and bibliographical research, to learn about all related species that have been previously described. Then, if there is complete certainty that it’s a different species that has not been previously described and published, there’s an entire process of formal description of the new species.

Did you immediately recognize it as a new species?

Absolutely not. Mikolji’s Oscar is difficult to differentiate externally. The first researcher who evidenced the main differences of Astronotus ocellatus (a binomial as it was previously known) from the Orinoco River basin, was the Swedish ichthyologist Sven Oscar Kullander, curator at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm. He is one of the greatest specialists in the world on species of the Cichlidae family, to which the species we were studying belongs. This was first published in 1981, followed by his 1983, 1986, and 1989 studies (including his Ph.D. thesis) and later in other studies of his published in 2003 (all cited in our recent article published in the ZooKeys journal).

Likewise, my brother, the Spanish and Venezuelan ichthyologist Carlos Andrés Lasso, currently a researcher at the Instituto de Recursos Biológicos Alexander von Humboldt of Colombia, with more than 40 years of experience, also recognized this species from the Orinoco River as different from the one present in the Amazon River basin. In 18 different studies carried out in Venezuela and Colombia (all cited in our article), he records this species as Astronotus cf ocellatus (“cf” means the species name is yet to be confirmed), or directly as Astronotus sp., already assuring that it was a different species and new to science.

We are letting the world know a defined and individual species exists.

With this background, we responsibly acknowledge that it was Sven and Carlos who discovered Mikolji’s Oscar, and not us. Our credit and recognition are given for the process of describing the new species and for its publication. It is very important to clarify here that the discovery of a new-to-science species and its description (and publication) are two different facts, situations, and processes. However, in our study, we discovered some very important morphological characteristics, as well as genetic information, that allowed the differentiation of this species from those already known.

What was most exciting about this finding?

 As an ichthyologist, I feel pride in collaborating and contributing to science, nationally, regionally, and globally. I feel satisfaction every time I share my research results at a scientific event or meeting (congress, symposium), or publish them in a scientific book (or part of it) or in a popular journal. This is not just an ordinary job for me, since I really like to investigate, and almost always have a lot of fun with this activity. As I have said in many of the interviews that I have had throughout my over 30-year career: to me, it’s not a job, it’s a way of living.

It fills me with great satisfaction to have the opportunity, more than 40 years after first meeting these Oscars, to be able to study them, describe them, and give them the name and place they deserve in science, and in the world.

The description of a species which is new to science is something really special, not only for me and my colleagues in this study, but for the vast majority of taxonomists. This is not only due to the fact that our last names will always appear next to the scientific name, but also to the fact that we are letting the world know a defined and individual species exists. By adding another species, we increase the known biodiversity of a country, a region, and the world, and therefore, we demonstrate that biodiversity must be studied, managed, conserved, and used rationally and independently.

Astronotus mikoljii is a very charismatic species, highly appreciated, valued, and loved in the aquarium hobby.

I remember that as a kid (between 7 and 13 years old), in the aquariums built at home by two of my older brothers, José Antonio and Carlos, to whom I largely owe being an ichthyologist today, we had some specimens of Oscars from Orinoco. We bought them in a local aquarium store in Caracas and took care of them, loved them like little children. I remember that in addition to feeling happily identified with the name (Oscar), they felt like real pets. They “got excited” when they saw us, took food directly from our hands without biting our fingers, and even let themselves be caressed, as if they were docile puppies or kittens. They were my favorite fish.

Years later, as an adult, beginning my research years, in the late 80’s and early 90’s, even with aquariums in our house (I had more than 20 in my good time as an aquarist), we had new specimens of these Oscars. This time, they were specimens captured by my brother and me, in the floodplains of the Orinoco River (Llanos de Apure), where for more than five years we studied the biology and ecology of some 200 local fish species, many of them unique in the world just like Mikolji’s Oscar. From that field study came the doctoral thesis of my brother Carlos, and the undergraduate theses of half a dozen other researchers, including mine.

It fills me with great satisfaction to have the opportunity, more than 40 years after first meeting these Oscars, to be able to study them, describe them, and give them the name and place they deserve in science, and in the world. It also fills me with deep satisfaction, having the opportunity to describe a “large-sized” species that was apparently already known, both locally and nationally (for its importance in fishing), as well as internationally in the world of aquarism. That is why, as I shared our study and finding on social media, I wrote: “Oscar describes the Oscar: Mikolji’s Oscar.

We are also extremely grateful to the many people who helped us and collaborated with us in this study, by collecting new specimens in the field, reviewing fish collections under their care, taking X-rays, searching for specialized bibliographies, studying the native or indigenous names, and even editing and publishing the article in Zookeys journal.

Likewise, it was exciting to share this research experience with colleagues from Brazil (co-authors of this study, just like me), who trusted us and our meticulous work.

Photos by Ivan Mikolji

The story continues with Part 2 and Part 3.

***

Follow the ZooKeys journal on Twitter and Facebook.

Top new species discoveries for the first half of 2022

The diversity is impressive, but what is even more amazing is how much more remains undiscovered.

In the world of biodiversity science, 2022 started with some great discoveries and a lot of hope. Here at Pensoft, we get to see a new species (or more!) make an appearance into the scientific world almost every day. The diversity is impressive, but what is even more amazing is how much more remains undiscovered.

With the first half of the year already behind us, here are the stellar new species that took the world by storm as soon as we published them.

The magical fairy wrasse

This rainbow-coloured fish is called Cirrhilabrus finifenmaa, or Rose-Veiled Fairy Wrasse, and it was found in the Maldives’ reefs. It can live 160 to 500 feet beneath the ocean’s surface in unexplored coral ecosystems dubbed “the twilight zone”. 

It was discovered within California Academy of SciencesHope for Reefs initiative, which is aimed at better understanding and protecting coral reefs around the world.

“Nobody knows these waters better than the Maldivian people,” says senior author and Academy Curator of Ichthyology Luiz Rocha. “Our research is stronger when it’s done in collaboration with local researchers and divers.”

Apart from its striking appearance, Cirrhilabrus finifenmaa also gained popularity as the first new-to-science species to be described by a Maldivian scientist.

“It has always been foreign scientists who have described species found in the Maldives, even those that are endemic, without much involvement from local scientists, says study co-author and Maldives Marine Research Institute biologist Ahmed Najeeb. “This time it is different.”

It is also one of the first species to have its name derived from the local Dhivehi language, ‘finifenmaa’ meaning ‘rose’, a nod to both its pink hues and the island nation’s national flower.

This beautiful fish is already being exploited through the aquarium hobbyist trade, a fact described as “unsettling” by the people who discovered it.

Published in ZooKeys.

The Taylor Swift millipede

How often is it that a millipede makes top news headlines? Well, Nannaria swiftae sure did.

Scientists Derek Hennen, Jackson Means, and Paul Marek, at Virginia Tech, U.S., described the new species in April, naming it after singer-songwriter Taylor Swift. “Her music helped me get through the highs and lows of graduate school, so naming a new millipede species after her is my way of saying thanks,” Derek Hennen says, admitting he has been her fan for years.

N. swiftae joins 16 other new species of twisted-claw millipedes described from the Appalachian Mountains of the United States. To find them, researchers traveled to 17 US states, checking under leaf litter, rocks, and logs. They then sequenced the DNA of the species they found and described them scientifically. They looked at over 1800 specimens collected on their field study or taken from university and museum collections!

These little-known invertebrates are somewhat tricky to catch, because they tend to remain buried in the soil, sometimes staying completely beneath the surface.

Most twisted-claw millipedes live on the forest floor, where they feed on decaying leaves and other plant matter. They also have a valuable role as decomposers: breaking down leaf litter, they release their nutrients into the ecosystem.

Published in ZooKeys.

The Greta Thunberg frog

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has been namesakes with a frog for half a year now. In 2018, Rainforest Trust celebrated its 30th anniversary by hosting an auction offering naming rights for some new-to-science species, including Pristimantis gretathunbergae, a black-eyed rainfrog from in eastern Panama.

The undisclosed auction winner wanted to name the frog in honor of Thunberg and her work in highlighting the urgency in preventing climate change. She has impressed global leaders and her work is drawing others to action for the climate.

The international team that discovered the new rainfrog was led by Abel Batista, Ph.D. (Panama) and Konrad Mebert, Ph.D. (Switzerland). They found the frog on Mount Chucanti, a sky island surrounded by lowland tropical rainforest in eastern Panama. Reaching its habitat in the cloud forest required access via horseback through muddy trails, hiking up steep slopes, by-passing two helicopters that crashed decades ago, and camping above 1000 m elevation.

Unfortunately, the frog’s remaining habitat is severely fragmented and highly threatened by rapid deforestation for plantations and cattle pasture. Rising temperatures are another threat as they could destroy its small mountain habitat. The Mount Chucanti region already has lost more than 30% of its forest cover over the past 10 years, and the scientists insist that conservation of the remaining habitat is critical to ensure the survival of the frog.

Published in ZooKeys.

The chocolate frog

Since we’re on the subject of frogs, how about one that almost looks like it’s not real?

Instantly gaining popularity as Chocolate Frog, Synapturanus danta is a curious little frog that was recently discovered in the Peruvian Amazon. Local people had long known about this tiny, burrowing frog with a long snout; one local name for it is rana danta, “tapir frog”, for its resemblance to the large-nosed Amazonian mammal.

“These frogs are really hard to find, and that leads to them being understudied,” says Michelle Thompson, a researcher in the Keller Science Action Center at Chicago’s Field Museum and one of the authors of the study describing the frog. “It’s an example of the Amazon’s hidden diversity, and it’s important to document it to understand how important the ecosystem functions.”

While the frogs are hard to see, they’re not hard to hear. “We just kept hearing this beep-beep-beep coming from underground, and we suspected it could be a new species of burrowing frog,” says Thompson. “But how do we get to it?”

Local guides who were familiar with the frogs led the researchers to peatland areas– wetlands carpeted with nutrient-rich turf made of decaying plant matter. “After 15 to 20 minutes of digging and looking for them, I heard Michelle screaming, and to me that could only mean that she and David had found the first adult,” says Germán Chávez, a researcher at Peru’s Instituto Peruano de Herpetología and the study’s first author.

The researchers used the physical specimens of the frogs, along with the recordings of their calls and an analysis of the frogs’ DNA, to confirm that they were a new species. They named them Synapturanus danta – Synapturanus is the name of the genus they belong to, and danta is the local word for “tapir.”

Published in Evolutionary Systematics.

The fabulous flaming-red snake

This magnificent non-venomous snake, previously unknown to science, was discovered in Paraguay. It belongs to the genus Phalotris, a group of snakes from central South America noted for their striking coloration with red, black, and yellow patterns.

Jean-Paul Brouard, one of the involved researchers, came across an individual of the new species by chance while digging a hole at Rancho Laguna Blanca in 2014. Together with his colleagues Paul Smith and Pier Cacciali, he described the discovery, naming the new snake Phalotris shawnella.

The species name recognizes two children – Shawn Ariel Smith Fernández and Ella Bethany Atkinson – who were born in the same year as the Fundación Para La Tierra (2008). They inspired the founders of the NGO to work for the conservation of Paraguayan wildlife, in the hope that their children can inherit a better world.

This new Phalotris snake is particularly attractive and can be distinguished from other related species in its genus by its red head in combination with a yellow collar, a black lateral band and orange ventral scales with irregular black spots.

Only known from three individuals, this species is endemic to the Cerrado forests of the department of San Pedro in east Paraguay. Its extreme rarity led the authors to consider it as “Endangered”, according to the conservation categories of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which means it is in imminent danger of extinction in the absence of measures for its protection.

Published in Zoosystematics and Evolution.

Citizen scientists from three continents help discover a new, giant slug from Europe

The animal, as big as a medium-sized carrot, was discovered on a citizen-science expedition and jointly described by its participants.

You might think that Europe is so well studied that no large animals remain undiscovered. Yet today, a new species of giant keelback slug from Montenegro was announced in the open-access Biodiversity Data Journal. The animal, as big as a medium-sized carrot, was discovered on a citizen-science expedition and jointly described by its participants.

A living specimen of Limax pseudocinereoniger on a researcher’s hand.

The international team of citizen scientists from Italy, the Netherlands, Serbia, South Africa, and the United States found the slug in July 2019 while exploring the spectacular Tara Canyon, Europe’s deepest gorge, on inflatable rafts. The brownish-grey animals, with a sharp ridge along the back, and 20 cm in length when fully stretched, were hiding under rocky overhangs in the narrowest part of the ravine.

A living specimen of Limax pseudocinereoniger seen from the side. Photo by Pierre Escoubas

At first, the newly discovered slugs seemed superficially indistinguishable from the ash-black keelback slug (Limax cinereoniger), which also lives in the Tara Canyon. The team had to use a portable DNA lab to work out that there is a 10% difference between the two slugs in the so-called DNA barcode. Moreover, when they dissected a few of them, they found differences in the reproductive organs as well. This was enough to decide that a new species had been discovered, and they named it Limax pseudocinereoniger to indicate its similarity to L. cinereoniger.

The field trip was run by Taxon Expeditions, which organises real scientific expeditions for the general public, with the aim to make scientific discoveries. Rick de Vries, a web editor and illustrator from Amsterdam who found the first specimen of L. pseudocinereoniger, says: “It’s an incredible thrill to hold an animal in your hands and to know that it is still unknown to science”.

Citizen scientists studying specimens in the team’s field lab in Montenegro.

Zoologist Iva Njunjić, one of the authors of the paper, thinks that more unknown species are likely to be found in Tara Canyon and the Durmitor National Park, of which it is part. “Using a combination of DNA analysis and anatomy will probably reveal more species that are identical on the outside but actually belong to different species,” she says.

In 2023, Taxon Expeditions plans to take a new team of citizen scientists to Montenegro with a mission to discover new species and document the hidden biodiversity.

Taxon Expeditions was founded by Iva Njunjić and Menno Schilthuizen of Naturalis Biodiversity Center and specialises in ‘taxonomy tourism’ trips in Brunei, Italy, Montenegro, Panama, and the Netherlands.

Original source:

Schilthuizen M, Thompson CG, de Vries R, van Peursen ADP, Paterno M, Maestri S, Marcolongo L, Esposti CD, Delledonne M, Njunjić I (2022) A new giant keelback slug of the genus Limax from the Balkans, described by citizen scientists. Biodiversity Data Journal 10: e69685. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.10.e69685

Festschrift for Dr Jason Londt at African Invertebrates invites submissions

African Invertebrates invites any submissions linked to Jason, new species descriptions, revisions of taxa he has worked on, or any work based on specimens he collected.

From 1976 to 1994, Jason Londt was Assistant Director at the Natal Museum (now KwaZulu-Natal Museum) in South Africa, publisher of the African Invertebrates journal. Then, he became Director before retiring in 2003.

During his career at the Museum and well after that, Jason described more than 570 species and 46 genera of insects from the Afrotropics. While the majority of his work was on the robber fly family (Asilidae), Jason also worked on hangingflies (Bittacidae) and ticks. He was also a prolific collector of many other insects, still kept in the collection of the KwaZulu-Natal Museum. 

Dr Jason Gilbert Hayden Londt

Jason’s fieldwork was extensively targeting the diverse habitats in South Africa: from the subtropical coast of KwaZulu-Natal, the grasslands in the Midlands around Pietermaritzburg – where the museum is based – and further north in the Highveld, to the higher elevations of the Drakensberg Mountains bordering Lesotho, and from the Succulent and Nama Karoo, to the diverse Fynbos habitats along the south-western coast of South Africa. Additional major fieldwork took place in Namibia, Kenya, Malawi, and to a lesser extent: Eswatini (Swaziland) and Cote d’Ivoire. In addition to utilising the collected material for taxonomic work, Jason also used his field trips to publish behavioural observations and prey selection of Asilidae species.

To celebrate Jason’s career achievements and his 80th birthday, African Invertebrates will be publishing a Festschrift in his honour in April 2023. We invite any submissions linked to Jason, new species descriptions, revisions of taxa he has worked on, or any work based on specimens collected by Jason.

This issue will be edited by Dr Torsten Dikow (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, USA), Dr Kirstin Williams (KwaZulu-Natal Museum) and Dr John Midgley (KwaZulu-Natal Museum). 

***

Submission deadline: 31 December 2022

***

Find more about the upcoming Festschrift on the African Invertebrates’ journal website. 

Follow African Invertebrates on Twitter and Facebook.

Taylor Swift, the millipede: Scientists name a new species after the singer

Scientists described a total of 17 new species from the Appalachian Mountains—now published in the open access journal ZooKeys.

Taylor Swift, U.S. singer-songwriter known for hits such as “Shake It Off” and “You Belong With Me”, has earned a new accolade—she now has a new species of millipede named in her honor.

Taylor Swift. Photo by Eva Rinaldi

The twisted-claw millipede Nannaria swiftae joins 16 other new species described from the Appalachian Mountains of the United States. These little-known invertebrates have a valuable role as decomposers: breaking down leaf litter, they release their nutrients into the ecosystem. They live on the forest floor, where they feed on decaying leaves and other plant matter, and in fact, they are somewhat tricky to catch, because they tend to remain buried in the soil, sometimes staying completely beneath the surface.

Her music helped me get through the highs and lows of graduate school, so naming a new millipede species after her is my way of saying thanks.

Derek Hennen

Scientists Derek Hennen, Jackson Means, and Paul Marek, at Virginia Tech, U.S., describe the new species in a research paper published in the open access journal ZooKeys. The research was funded by a National Science Foundation Advancing Revisionary Taxonomy and Systematics grant (DEB# 1655635).

The newly described twisted-claw millipede, Nannaria swiftae. Photo by Dr Derek Hennen

Because of their presence in museum collections, scientists long suspected that the twisted-claw millipedes included many new species, but these specimens went undescribed for decades. To fix this, the researchers began a multi-year project to collect new specimens throughout the eastern U.S. They traveled to 17 US states, checking under leaf litter, rocks, and logs to find species so that they could sequence their DNA and scientifically describe them.

Example of typical habitat for twisted-claw millipedes. Photo by Dr Derek Hennen

Looking at over 1800 specimens collected on their field study or taken from university and museum collections, the authors described 17 new species, including Nannaria marianae, which was named after Hennen’s wife. They discovered that the millipedes prefer to live in forested habitats near streams and are often found buried under the soil, exhibiting more cryptic behaviors than relatives.

The newly-described millipedes range between 18 and 38 mm long, have shiny caramel-brown to black bodies with white, red, or orange spots, and have white legs. The males have small, twisted and flattened claws on their anterior legs, which is the basis for their common name.

The lead author of the study, Derek Hennen, is a fan of Taylor Swift. 

“Her music helped me get through the highs and lows of graduate school, so naming a new millipede species after her is my way of saying thanks,” he says.

Research article:

Hennen DA, Means JC, Marek PE (2022) A revision of the wilsoni species group in the millipede genus Nannaria Chamberlin, 1918 (Diplopoda, Polydesmida, Xystodesmidae). ZooKeys 1096: 17-118. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1096.73485

Follow ZooKeys on Twitter and Facebook.

Image recognition to the rescue of natural history museums by enabling curators to identify specimens on the fly

New Research Idea, published in RIO Journal presents a promising machine-learning ecosystem to unite experts around the world and make up for lacking taxonomic expertise.

In their Research Idea, published in Research Ideas and Outcomes (RIO Journal), Swiss-Dutch research team present a promising machine-learning ecosystem to unite experts around the world and make up for lacking expert staff

Guest blog post by Luc Willemse, Senior collection manager at Naturalis Biodiversity Centre (Leiden, Netherlands)

Imagine the workday of a curator in a national natural history museum. Having spent several decades learning about a specific subgroup of grasshoppers, that person is now busy working on the identification and organisation of the holdings of the institution. To do this, the curator needs to study in detail a huge number of undescribed grasshoppers collected from all sorts of habitats around the world. 

The problem here, however, is that a curator at a smaller natural history institution – is usually responsible for all insects kept at the museum, ranging from butterflies to beetles, flies and so on. In total, we know of around 1 million described insect species worldwide. Meanwhile, another 3,000 are being added each year, while many more are redescribed, as a result of further study and new discoveries. Becoming a specialist for grasshoppers was already a laborious activity that took decades, how about knowing all insects of the world? That’s simply impossible. 

Then, how could we expect from one person to sort and update all collections at a museum: an activity that is the cornerstone of biodiversity research? A part of the solution, hiring and training additional staff, is costly and time-consuming, especially when we know that experts on certain species groups are already scarce on a global scale. 

We believe that automated image recognition holds the key to reliable and sustainable practises at natural history institutions. 

Today, image recognition tools integrated in mobile apps are already being used even by citizen scientists to identify plants and animals in the field. Based on an image taken by a smartphone, those tools identify specimens on the fly and estimate the accuracy of their results. What’s more is the fact that those identifications have proven to be almost as accurate as those done by humans. This gives us hope that we could help curators at museums worldwide take better and more timely care of the collections they are responsible for. 

However, specimen identification for the use of natural history institutions is still much more complex than the tools used in the field. After all, the information they store and should be able to provide is meant to serve as a knowledge hub for educational and reference purposes for present and future generations of researchers around the globe.

This is why we propose a sustainable system where images, knowledge, trained recognition models and tools are exchanged between institutes, and where an international collaboration between museums from all sizes is crucial. The aim is to have a system that will benefit the entire community of natural history collections in providing further access to their invaluable collections. 

We propose four elements to this system: 

  1. A central library of already trained image recognition models (algorithms) needs to be created. It will be openly accessible, so any other institute can profit from models trained by others.
Mock-up of a Central Library of Algorithms.
  1. A central library of datasets accessing images of collection specimens that have recently been identified by experts. This will provide an indispensable source of images for training new algorithms.
Mock-up of a Central Library of Datasets.
  1. A digital workbench that provides an easy-to-use interface for inexperienced users to customise the algorithms and datasets to the particular needs in their own collections. 
  2. As the entire system depends on international collaboration as well as sharing of algorithms and datasets, a user forum is essential to discuss issues, coordinate, evaluate, test or implement novel technologies.

How would this work on a daily basis for curators? We provide two examples of use cases.

First, let’s zoom in to a case where a curator needs to identify a box of insects, for example bush crickets, to a lower taxonomic level. Here, he/she would take an image of the box and split it into segments of individual specimens. Then, image recognition will identify the bush crickets to a lower taxonomic level. The result, which we present in the table below – will be used to update object-level registration or to physically rearrange specimens into more accurate boxes. This entire step can also be done by non-specialist staff. 

Mock-up of box with grasshoppers mentioned in the above table

Results of automated image recognition identify specimens to a lower taxonomic level.

Another example is to incorporate image recognition tools into digitisation processes that include imaging specimens. In this case, image recognition tools can be used on the fly to check or confirm the identifications and thus improve data quality.

Mock-up of an interface for automated taxon identification. 

Using image recognition tools to identify specimens in museum collections is likely to become common practice in the future. It is a technical tool that will enable the community to share available taxonomic expertise. 

Using image recognition tools creates the possibility to identify species groups for which there is very limited to none in-house expertise. Such practises would substantially reduce costs and time spent per treated item. 

Image recognition applications carry metadata like version numbers and/or datasets used for training. Additionally, such an approach would make identification more transparent than the one carried out by humans whose expertise is, by design, in no way standardised or transparent.

*

Follow RIO Journal on Twitter and Facebook.

*

Research publication:

Greeff M, Caspers M, Kalkman V, Willemse L, Sunderland BD, Bánki O, Hogeweg L (2022) Sharing taxonomic expertise between natural history collections using image recognition. Research Ideas and Outcomes 8: e79187. https://doi.org/10.3897/rio.8.e79187

Scientists discover White-handed gibbons that have been evolving in the south of Malaysia

Genetic assessment of captive gibbons to identify their species and subspecies is an important step before any conservation actions. A group of wildlife researchers recently discovered a previously unknown population of white-handed gibbons (subspecies lar) from Peninsular Malaysia. Their findings are now published in the open-access journal ZooKeys. Betsy and Lola are among the captive white-handed gibbons undergoing a strict rehabilitation process before being released back to the wild.

Many captive gibbons kept in zoos and rescue centres have been seized from illegal pet trade, private collectors, and plantations where their natural habitats are getting destroyed. 

In 2013, the National Wildlife Rescue Centre (NWRC) of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (PERHILITAN) was established in Peninsular Malaysia to help with the rehabilitation of wildlife species – including gibbons – before they are reintroduced or translocated back to the wild. Under the Primate Rehabilitation Programme initiated by PERHILITAN, captive gibbons have to go through a number of procedures and assessments, where their taxonomy and genetics might be examined, before they can go back to living in the wild.

Members of the research team at National Wildlife Forensic Laboratory of DWNP. Photo by PERHILITAN

Following the Guidelines for Reintroductions and Other Conservation Translocations provided by the IUCN Species Survival Commission, researchers Dr Jeffrine J. Rovie-Ryan from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak and Millawati Gani and colleagues from the National Wildlife Forensic Laboratory of PERHILITAN conducted a genetic assessment on 12 captive white-handed gibbons in NWRC. Determining the subspecies and origin of the animals is an important step that informs further decisions on their translocation and reintroduction.

In a research paper published in the open-access journal ZooKeys, the team describes a previously unknown southern population of the white-handed gibbon subspecies lar living in Peninsular Malaysia. In what started as a straightforward species and subspecies identification process using DNA technology, the researchers discovered unusual mutations in the DNA of the studied gibbons. This is how the researchers found themselves before a distinct population, which they concluded must have been evolving in isolation.

Lola (left) and Betsy (right), two of the White-handed gibbons of the Hylobates lar lar subspecies undergoing rehabilitation process at Pulau Ungka, NWRC. Photo by Hani Nabilia and PERHILITAN

“Given the prolonged isolation, it is likely that the southern population has undergone some local speciation, but this finding should be regarded as preliminary and requires further investigation,” explained Dr Jeffrine. Furthermore, the researchers suggest there might be a northern population inhabiting Southern Thailand.

Still going through rehabilitation, the gibbons from the study have been pre-released into a semi-wild enclosure known as Pulau Ungka (Gibbon Island), where their recovery is closely monitored by primate experts of PERHILITAN.

Research article:

Gani M, Rovie-Ryan JJ, Sitam FT, Mohd Kulaimi, NA, Zheng, CC, Atiqah AN, Abd Rahim, NM, Mohammed AA (2021) Taxonomic and genetic assessment of captive White-Handed Gibbons (Hylobates lar) in Peninsular Malaysia with implications towards conservation translocation and reintroduction programme. ZooKeys 1076: 25–41 (2021), doi: 10.3897/zookeys.1076.73262